Cover Story: High school rivals Vandenberg, Cotton team up for Hawks
James Vandenberg had seen Jordan Cotton run before.
He had seen Cotton star in the 100- and 200-meter dashes at district track meets. Vandenberg had seen Cotton rip off a kick-return touchdown against his team a year earlier.
So when he saw Cotton burst through the line of scrimmage and find a seam to the end zone, he knew it was bad news.
“He was just so, so fast,” Vandenberg said. “He could take it all the way every time he touched the ball.”
Vandenberg can still rattle off details about the game off the top of his head: He passed for 360 yards on Sept. 14, 2007, when his Keokuk Chiefs faced off against bitter conference rival Mount Pleasant.
But Keokuk turned the ball over in the red zone twice and missed an extra point off the upright during the game.
That set up Vandenberg’s most vivid memory of the game: Cotton, then Mount Pleasant’s star running back, sprinting more than 70 yards for a touchdown with fewer than two minutes left to win the game, 21-20.
It was the only game Keokuk lost that season.
“He had like over 240 yards that day. And I’ll always hate him for that,” Vandenberg joked. “I didn’t really like him at that point.”
Jayson Campbell, Keokuk’s head coach that season, is now an assistant principal at Mount Pleasant Middle School, and he supervises football games at the high-school field. And every time he’s there, Campbell said, he gets “irritated” when he thinks about that game.
“They had a pretty good recipe for winning, and that was with Jordan running the ball,” Campbell said. “He was just so fast that you had to hold your breath on every play … I think about that game all the time. Our state championship ring from that year has 12-1 on it, and I always wish it had 13-0.”
Vandenberg thinks about the loss less often — though Cotton said he “still let[s] him know all the time.” The two have bigger things to think about.
Such as gaining bowl eligibility this season.
“They’re teammates now,” Campbell said. “I think it’s a neat story.”
Greg Davis likes fast receivers. His offenses at Texas always used them, including an Olympic sprinter last season in Marquise Goodwin. One of the first things Davis mentioned in his first spring practice as Iowa’s offensive coordinator was that the Hawkeyes needed “more speed on the outside.”
Jordan Cotton had that speed. He just hadn’t been able to use it yet.
Cotton had recorded just one career catch in his first two seasons after entering the program as a heralded in-state recruit. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Cotton was “virtually invisible” in his first two years with the team.
But Davis noticed that blazing speed and asked Vandenberg to spend the summer working with the junior receiver.
“Right when Coach Davis got here, we talked about how we wanted to give Jordan every opportunity to win a spot and be able to play,” Vandenberg said.
Cotton was thinking the same.
“I wanted to take the off-season this summer and work really hard,” he said. “I knew I had a lot to improve on as a receiver.”
So Vandenberg and Cotton headed to the practice facility almost every day — often just the two of them, a pair of formerly bitter rivals — to practice different routes, go over audible signals, and run through game situations. Cotton soaked it all up. And teammates say that grasping the offense was the key to unleashing all that speed.
“It’s confidence. He always had the ability,” senior receiver Keenan Davis said. “He would go out and make a play in practice that was like, ‘Jeez, Cotton.’ But he just didn’t feel comfortable, and you could always tell.”
“With Cotton, it was always more mental than it was physical,” Vandenberg said. “When he was confused mentally, he wasn’t able to play to his speed or his abilities. It was just getting him in a spot where he knew everything that was going on so he could just react and play.
“Once we got him there, we all saw him take strides.”
One of the bright spots
It hasn’t been a good season for the Iowa passing game.
Vandenberg is struggling in the pocket, receivers are dropping passes, and the statistics are ugly. But chemistry between Vandenberg and Cotton has been clear.
They connected for a 36-yard strike in the first quarter against Central Michigan. In the third quarter of that game, Cotton turned a short hitch into a 13-yard game with a series of juke moves.
The next week, against Minnesota, they provided what might be the highlight of Iowa’s season. Mark Weisman tossed the ball back to Vandenberg on a flea-flicker. Cotton streaked down the sideline, wide open. Vandenberg lobbed the ball into the air for a 47-yard touchdown pass.
Cotton has 8 catches for 137 yards so far, including four third-down catches that moved the chains for Iowa. “Jordan’s one of the good stories we have right now,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He hadn’t done an awful lot until this year, but he’s done some really nice things, made some good third-down catches. His development has helped us, and James has been invested in that.”
Cotton said the summer workouts with Vandenberg were “a huge reason” for their success together this season. Perhaps they also helped bury the hatchet.
“We were big rivals,” he said. “It’s a little weird at first playing with a guy you wanted to beat in high school. It was fun then going against him, but it’s even better now being teammates with him.”
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